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  • Makoto Shibuya

Facing Surprise

This image should look familiar. Yet something about it feels strange, uncomfortable, and perhaps even wrong. It may even take a second to realize why.

The universe knows no up nor down, no cardinal directions. So, what if we rotated it? How would that affect our perspective?

Our perspective of the world makes up our reality, and that can be unique to each of us. When our beliefs are challenged, we tend to get defensive. If an idea doesn't align with our reality, we often dismiss it as "wrong."

You may wonder, how can a triangle possibly be mistaken for a circle?

It could depend on our vantage point. The object may look like a triangle from some vantage points, while it would look like a circle from others. Objectively, it is shaped like a cone. Neither observation is wrong; it is just a matter of perspective. Our disagreements can often come down to a difference in perspective.

Then, how could a circle or triangle be mistaken for a square?

Again, it may depend on our vantage point. Say the cone is contained in a box. From the outside, the object would appear as a box. Alternatively, from inside the box, all we see is the cone. The box could be exponentially larger than the cone, and we may not even realize it exists.

The box in this example could represent a culture, religion, or language—any lens through which we view the world and extract meaning from experience. The same experience may vary in meaning depending on the lens through which we view it.


For example, when I slurp my delicious noodles in Japan, it shows appreciation and respect. However, slurping in many Western cultures is considered to be rude. The same experience has two meanings depending on whether I am inside or outside that box. While this can be brushed off as an innocent oversight, other situations are more nuanced, consequential, and complex.


The box can also be a metaphor for time. The same bottle of wine has a different meaning after it has aged for a decade. The same place may be perceived differently before and after certain events occur. The same poker hand will have a different meaning each time the round of cards is dealt. Even the same language can carry different connotations over time as society evolves.

That is why your childhood home can feel different later in life, NYC carries a different meaning after September 11th, 2001, and some humor doesn't age too well. Differences in our perspective can stem from the passing of time—the same environment, community, generation, or brand can carry different meanings thanks to the patina of time.


The box can also represent a threshold of knowledge that causes you to see something different. Depending on the information available, the same person, in the exact location, at a precise time, can perceive the same object or experience differently.

Consider the following examples:

  • With knowledge of how to start a fire, some twigs can look like energy.

  • With knowledge of specific rules, an activity can look like a sport.

  • With knowledge of an ulterior motive, a seeming act of kindness is exposed.

  • With the knowledge of an intoxicated driver, a moving car becomes a danger.

What we see can depend on the information we have available to us. We will all inevitably see things differently as we continue democratizing our access to information. Historically, our views about the world were similar to those around us as we were exposed to similar experiences. Today, with the world's information at our fingertips, we may have more information in common with someone in a different hemisphere than our next-door neighbor.

Doodle by Makoto Shibuya

These differences in perspective are the source of many disagreements, likely exacerbated by increasingly complex decisions we will collectively face. This tension tends to escalate during times of uncertainty, and acknowledging that we all have blind spots goes a long way in mediating this tension by opening up our aperture.


Viewing experiences from multiple viewpoints was a natural consequence of growing up in a multicultural environment—the array of cultures around me perpetually tested and reframed my perspective at a young age. I learned to pay close attention when an idea or belief felt "wrong" to me. As Adam Robinson effectively puts it:

"What surprise tells you is that your model of the world is incorrect." —Adam Robinson

A breadth of experience helps to strengthen our empathy by letting us step outside of our own experience. Experiences, sometimes uncomfortable ones, help round out our perspective. Through experience, we can begin to see things from other perspectives. While we often find comfort in the status quo, it is essential to cultivate our perspective proactively, or it risks atrophy.

Literacy in different disciplines and schools of thought can alter how you see the world. Books and stories are an accessible way to traverse environments and ideas when experience isn't an option. Still, it is essential to corroborate what we hear and read with experience, as that may be our closest source of truth. To know something is to have experienced it to be true.

This realization challenged me to see if I could create something that would "surprise" all of us. Art can often alter our thoughts, challenge our beliefs, and activate our emotions. I wanted to evoke a sense of "that can't be right" while remaining provocative enough to question our bias.

As a result, I designed the following GIF:

© Makoto Shibuya

I thought long and hard to find something we could all agree on, only to change how we view it.

We are all used to seeing our environment mapped in a particular orientation. What if we grew up with a map of our solar system rotated 90 degrees? Nothing has changed except our vantage point, but how would this perspective affect us?

  • Would this influence our thinking? Our behavior? Our beliefs?

  • Would we have drawn different borders?

  • Would we have fought different wars?

  • Would this have empowered the global south?

  • If two people grew up with two different maps? How would it affect their relationship?

  • If two nations grew up with two different maps? How would it affect their relationship?

These are, of course, rhetorical questions I found myself asking. The next time you think, "That can't be right," it could be a matter of perspective and a sign to pay close attention.

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